Links between Auckland and Shanghai have been boosted by the arrival of China Eastern's latest aircraft with new premium cabins aimed at the growing number of high-value visitors.
The state-owned airline's new Boeing 787-9 aircraft will increase capacity by 20 per cent on daily Shanghai flights and is laying on the luxe with a first-class compartment, suite-style business-class seats, premium economy and a bigger economy section than in the Airbus A330 it replaces.
It will provide more competition for Air New Zealand, which also flies the route and found the inbound China market tough going for most of the past 13 years up against the big state airlines and last month described the Shanghai service as softer than other points in Asia.
China Eastern's business seats have sliding doors for privacy and the airline says screens in its premium-economy class and economy-class seats are the largest in their class in China.
The airline started flying here in September 2015 and is one 10th largest in the world by revenue and eighth by number of passengers carried. It has a fleet of more than 600 long-haul and short-haul aircraft.
It initially used Airbus A330s to fly from Shanghai Pudong to Auckland four times a week but has boosted capacity and frequency since.
Auckland Airport's general manager of aeronautical commercial, Scott Tasker, said China Eastern was a valuable airline for this country.
''It's important to have them here because of the network they've got out of Shanghai-Pudong to serve Chinese markets but they have a significant global and Asian network beyond China,'' he said.
The new 285-seat aircraft on the route was in the Shanghai Airlines livery, which since 2010 had been part of the China Eastern group
Capacity to China had grown rapidly in the past five years and although it flattened in the past year, Tasker said this summer would be up 2 per cent on last year.
He said load factor for airlines to China was close to 90 per cent and numbers on non-stop flights are growing, in spite of the total of Chinese visitors falling this year.
''If you look at total Chinese arrivals from January to June, they're down 6 per cent. But if you look at Chinese arriving on direct flights as opposed to those coming via Australia or other points in Asia, Chinese arrivals are up 2 per cent.''
The visitors who come to New Zealand as a sole destination were likely to be bigger spenders and stay here longer than if they visited other countries as well.
''Airlines like China Eastern on a route like Auckland can see this premium traveller continues to grow. It's the story everywhere, as a destination that's where we're attractive.''
New Zealand outbound travel through the airport grew by about 5 per cent in the past year but the numbers going to China were up 16 per cent due to a larger ex-pat population returning to visit their homeland and more from this country touring what is a reasonably priced destination.
Tasker said the increased freight capacity of the new plane would help boost already buoyant fresh food exports to Shanghai, a city of nearly 24 million.
During a briefing to analysts last month the airport's chief executive Adrian Littlewood said travellers on indirect flights spend about four days in this country whereas direct is nearly two weeks.
''That transfer from indirect to direct, I think, is a good story for the future, and you can see that sort of showing up in some of the improving performance on the connections through to China,'' Littlewood said.
''The other part of the China story is obviously the increasing diversity of markets through that - those ports. So we're obviously still seeing the Indian market connecting well through ports like Guangzhou.''
Australians and Americans continued to visit New Zealand in growing numbers in the traditionally quiet month of July, more than offsetting the decline in Asian tourist numbers.
Figures today show about 255,585 short-term visitors arrived in New Zealand in July, up 2 per cent from the same month a year earlier, despite a fall in the number of those from China, New Zealand's second biggest visitor market.
The Stats NZ data shows annual visitors rose 2.8 per cent to 3.89 million people in the year ended July 31. There were 2.8 per cent, or 41,689 more Australian visitors, but 6.4 per cent, or 28,789, fewer Chinese visitors.